This sermon was preached with First Presbyterian Church in Saline and was focused upon Psalm 23.
Psalm 23 is a psalm of presence and comfort.
I found myself grateful last week when I looked to see which scriptures were listed in the Revised Common Lectionary for this Sunday. There it was: Psalm 23. It seemed to be right on time. For years, we’ve been living a collective time of disruption, concern, and large-scale change. We need a psalm of presence and comfort.
We also just need… presence and comfort. We need these from each other too. And today, we invite each other to a Beyond-Presence and a Within-Presence that many of us call God. In this God, there is a love deep and abiding, and larger than disruption, concern, and large-scale change. And without diminishing any part of how challenging these are — they are real and upsetting; after all, they are disruption, concern and large-scale change —we may need to remind each other that love shows up even there. God shows up there. We want to show up there with our love with and for each other, with and for our neighbors.
Psalm 23 tends to show up right there — right in these kinds of realities. Psalm 23 is often read at the bedsides of those who are sick or dying. It’s read in memory care nursing homes, and sometimes, people with dementia are still able to recite it along with others, because they put it to memory so long ago, and it’s in a deep place where they can recall it. Psalm 23 is read in times of war. It’s read at funerals. It’s been recited internally in people’s thoughts, awake in the middle of the night during high stress and insomnia.
It would be remarkable to know the full history of this Psalm — all the places where it has been read, all the languages, and especially, all of the specific situations it has spoken into. I would like to know that. I am sure many of us have specific stories, and specific situations we would lift up from our own lives of the lives of loved ones. Maybe it might help to bring those people and those moments and those loves to mind too. We can invite them to provide presence and comfort for us.
The Lord is my shepherd,
I shall not want.
The Psalm begins this way.
I don’t want the beginning of this psalm to be a mere platitude in any way. We know that some *are* in want. To give just one example, before the pandemic began 1 in 8 children lived in poverty. That number is now closer to 1 in 4 or 1 in 5. These years have disrupted our typical rhythms, and some have found themselves suddenly without work or resources. This is real, and we may need to grieve these changes. But is this not precisely the kind of place where love should show up? Where God should bring presence and comfort, and where God can stir up our presence and comfort to address these needs tangibly?
When the pandemic began, Washtenaw County, we TP-ed each other’s houses. This was true, of course, in a totally different way than that phrase usually suggests. Local organizers started a Facebook page called Washtenaw County Mutual Aid + Resources. In that space, people began to help one another to address a variety of needs.
It was beautiful to watch. In that space, some let people know about public resources and how to access them. Some are advocated for sick leave. Some are requested Venmo, PayPal, and CashApp accounts of those who were losing incomes due to cancelations and job losses, and they were sending money along. And you guessed it: People started thread that invites people to pass toilet paper along to those who need it. Remember when that was in short supply? We were TPing each other’s houses.
In our faith tradition, there are stories about Jesus feeding crowds of 4,000 to 5,000 people from a mere five loves of bread and two fish. These enormous crowds had been following him and assembling together to request healing and to listen to him teach. As you might remember, the disciples wanted to send them away to surrounding towns to buy food, but Jesus said, “You give them something to eat.”
Maybe right then, there was the sound of crickets. Silence. “How do we do that?” They certainly wondered.
They were probably panicking. It’s a task too large, and they didn’t necessarily want to be responsible for people growing weak and fainting.
And maybe they also want a break.
Please. I need some introvert time. Send them awaaaaaay for a while.
“We only have five loaves of bread and two fish,” they said. Could that have been a sarcastic response? Or maybe just a declarative, matter-of-fact one? A practical one?
“We’re not going to be able to do it,” they think.
But then, a miracle happens. Jesus begins to break that bread and share that fish, and everyone has enough to eat. They even finish with twelve baskets left over.
What happened here? The traditional interpretation I’ve heard most is that Jesus reveals himself to be a creator: He’s in alignment with The Creator and is one and the same. He miraculously creates and multiples this food out of virtually nothing. That’s a beautiful interpretation.
But I’m also intrigued by another interpretation:
What if Jesus began giving this food away to the first few people as a deliberate teaching moment? Modeling this first, what if people then understood he was issuing an invitation? What if they then reached into their pockets or satchels or baskets or whatever they used back then and began to share the food they have too? Giving and receiving, what if they passed it all around to their neighbors and were amazed to discover that there’s enough? Even more than enough?
I think that’s a beautiful interpretation too, and there is sacred truth to both of them.
That invitation continues right now.
The Lord is my shepherd,
I shall not want.
There is presence and comfort in that statement, but it’s not a platitude. If God is our shepherd, we might be a part of that vision and calling, adding our own presence and comfort, adding our own resources.
So we might ask ourselves these questions:
What need do I see or know about?
What abundance do I have?
How do I make them match?
Or even… What meager, small thing do I have? What tiny thing can I share as part of a collective contagion of giving? Something that might chip away at a need and inspire more giving?
These are good questions.
The Psalm ends this way:
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
my whole life long.
Over the last few years, we had periods in time when we were separated from our sanctuaries, unable to gather in person, and there was some very real grief about that. But I think we were also reminded that house in our relationships, so we still exist there, and we can’t do anything but exist there, even our whole lives long, because we love each other, and we are that house. In these relationships, we may house each other’s needs. We may find our own needs held within that house.
And as a household, we can also recognize goodness and mercy. And we can receive goodness and mercy. And we can share it. We can understand that our relationships are a part of this psalm of presence and comfort. We can keep adding our presence and our comfort too.